"The Dance of Dragons," the ninth episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, was a fiery ordeal on all fronts. In true Game of Thrones fashion, some parts dramatically pushed the envelope.
It's been frustrating in recent weeks how Daenerys hasn't taken full advantage of her dragons as a source of hard-handed legitimacy to her rule. Even if roasting local elites at random wasn't the best intimidation tactic, the Mother of Dragons still needs her namesake to lay down the rule of the law. We wanted dragons, and this week we got them.
Here are the moments everyone will be talking about.
1) Spare the ritual sacrifice, spoil the child
After the recent scenes building up the emotional bond between Stannis and his daughter Shireen, you might conclude that this season might come to a close without Melisandre's plans for child murder playing out. But her witchcraft tends to have one distinct advantage: it works (or at least she makes it seem like it does). And, thus, in his hour of greatest need, Stannis burns Shireen to death.
For Stannis, it's a point of no return. He's broken, power-hungry, and ready to sacrifice everything he has for his shot at winning the Iron Throne.
Whether or not victory is likely is another question. After his camp is attacked by Ramsay Bolton's 20-man crew, Stannis sends Davos back to Castle Black to request more supplies and food for the troops. Davos has always been Stannis's voice of reason and humanity, a good counterbalance to the radically devout, morally blind ways of Melisandre.
Davos, clearly fearing that Stannis might sacrifice Shireen, gives her a carved wooden deer before leaving. But it's no use. With his most stalwart adviser gone, Stannis has taken his final leap of faith with the Lord of Light. Time will tell if he'll land on his feet.
2) In the fighting pits, dragon ex machina
For better or for worse, Jorah can't stop trying to prove himself to Daenerys. He presents himself at the fighting pits and narrowly survives a series of duels before chucking a spear straight toward Daenerys's seat, impaling a masked assassin that no one else had noticed.
A full-on brawl breaks out, as the Sons of the Harpy storm through into the stadium, encircling Dany, Tyrion, Jorah, and the rest of the crew. Dany's husband, Hizdahr zo Loraq — the elite family leader she tied the knot with a few episodes back — doesn't make it out alive.
Things look pretty grim for the Mother of Dragons, until Drogon swoops down from above and chases the aggressors out of the stadium. It's a quick victory, but the scale of the Meereenese resistance group is becoming more and more of a problem. The Sons of the Harpy are dropping like flies (Ser Barristan took dozens down with him in his fatal encounter), but they keep rising from the ashes and coming back as strong as ever.
3) Arya meets an old enemy with a new reason to hate him
As she heads to the docks to deliver poison to the Thin Man, Arya catches a glimpse of Mace Tyrell arriving in Braavos. He's there to bargain over the Iron Throne's debt with the Iron Bank — but what really catches her eye is Meryn Trant, the man she still blames for the death of her old swordsmanship teacher, Syrio. (Also, he's not a very nice man.)
She tracks Meryn to a brothel, where she witnesses him reveal his pedophilia, turning down every prostitute for being "too old" until he settles on a young girl.
Arya and Trant make eye contact, if only for a moment. If her personal grudge wasn't enough justification for Arya to take the guy out, surely his sexual preferences will provide all the reason she needs.
4) After a zombie massacre, Jon has a tense homecoming
To Jon Snow's delight, the Night's Watch opens the gates of the Wall when he arrives with hundreds of wildlings in tow from the massacre at Hardhome. The wildlings don't want to be there, and the Crows don't want the wildlings there — but still there's at least some sense of trust in Jon's leadership and the strategy he has in the works. We'll see how far that trust goes in the season finale.
5) The Kingslayer negotiates a way home
There's a deep divide between Prince Doran and Ellaria Sand. Ellaria wants immediate revenge on the Lannisters for the death of Oberyn, but the Prince knows Jaime isn't to blame for what happened.
Doran agrees not only to release Jaime and Bronn, but to send them back to King's Landing along with the princess Myrcella and her fiancé, Trystane. They're allowed to go on the condition that the young betrothed stay together, and that Trystane get a spot on the Small Council to take Oberyn's place.
The Sand Snakes are also released, after Ellaria is forced to reaffirm her allegiance to Doran. If this is all that there is to this storyline, then it feels like a lot of setup for very little payoff. Maybe next week's season finale will pull all of this into focus.
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